If you are over the age of 60, you might want to consider taking probiotics, particularly if you have low immunity or suffer from pancreatitis, liver disease, or gut problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome or one of the inflammatory diseases. Read on to discover the role of bacteria in your gut, and how it can benefit your health.
The human gut contains trillions of bacteria, made up of around 500 different species, which work together like a huge chemical factory to help digest food, produce vitamins, regulate hormones and excrete toxins. Like a rainforest, the microbes in your stomach are a diverse and interdependent ecosystem - and they need to be in balance in order to work efficiently.
Some of the strains of bacteria are "friendly", like bifidobacteria or lactobacilli, and help with food digestion, while others are bad, such as parasites or yeast, and can cause disease.
How gut bacteria changes with age
Once we reach 60, we have about 1,000-fold less "friendly" bacteria in out gut compared to our earlier adult years. We also have increased levels of disease-causing bacteria, making us more susceptible to gastrointestinal infections and bowel conditions, such as IBS. Some experts believe that poor gut health can be linked to obesity, diabetes, and certain kinds of cancer.
Age brings with it other changes too, such as a slower gut transit time (how long it takes for food to pass through the digestive system), which can affect the composition of gut microflora too.
According to Glenn Gibson, professor of food microbiology at Reading University, older people would benefit from having more friendly bacteria – to help protect against chronic gut diseases as well as food poisoning. Those taking antibiotics (of any age) are also advised to take probiotics. That's because, while antibiotics do a good job of wiping out 'bad' bacteria, they also wipe out good bacteria.
Some experts believe that the wide use of antibiotics – prescribed to humans or used in the food industry (given to livestock to keep them healthy and gain weight) could be partly responsible for the rise in obesity in modern times. Consuming these antibiotics, it's suggested, may upset the balance of microbes in the stomach, leading to weight gain.
What to take
Probiotic products, such as yoghurts and drinks, contain live strains of bacteria which boost levels of the friendly bacteria in the gut. However, be careful what you buy. Research has shown that some brands on the market are not effective, and it should be remembered that some "bio-yoghurts" on sale are not the same as probiotics, as they just contain bacteria strains useful for making yoghurts.
To be effective, a probiotic product needs to contain the correct strain of live bacteria and be able to survive the digestive process.
A study from UCL College of Pharmacy tested eight leading brands, including Actimel and Yakult, and found that only one - Symprove – proved effective.
Improve your diet
There are a number of foods you can eat to help establish an optimum balance of gut microflora:
Fibre cleans the colon clear of unwanted bacteria and provides material for beneficial bacteria to thrive. Good sources include oats, brown rice, beans and lentils, apples and pears, almonds and root vegetables.
Cultured foods that contain beneficial bacteria include natural yoghurt, kefir, raw sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
Prebiotics provide the 'food' for probiotics to feed on. Some experts suggest that taking a combinations of pre- and probiotics is even more beneficial for your health.
Prebiotics can be taken in capsules, tablets or powders that you sprinkle on food, and are also found naturally in onions, garlic, leeks, whole grains, bananas, honey, asparagus, artichoke and chicory.